Pretty experimental for 1940, no?
The conventional wisdom (read: baloney) on George Stevens is that WWII changed him from a fleet-footed comedy director to a leaden dramatist — one shakes one’s head sadly, understandingly — he did, after all, witness the liberation of the camps, after which the prospect of romantic comedy surely seemed unappealing — and perhaps one thinks of the hero of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the dangers of the message movie.
In fact, VIGIL IN THE NIGHT, released in 1940, shows how Stevens was already itching to get to grips with more sombre subjects: after all, the movie, a medical drama, kills a cute kid in the very first sequence. He perhaps didn’t have the chops for it yet, but that would come. Like Leo McCarey, Stevens went from frivolous nothings to incredibly elegant and accomplished comedies, but unlike McCarey his move into more serious films opened up fresh stylistic possibilities. Whatever you think of the lap dissolves of A PLACE IN THE SUN or the tableau style of THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, these devices stretch the conventional language of Hollywood storytelling.
There’s some of that on display in VIGIL, where the desire to simulate the dark environment of Northern England (the story is from a novel by A.J. Cronin, author of
The Crucible The Citadel) involves Stevens in some weird stylisation with his lavish but grimy sets. This is obvious from the start, when he pans from a SFX lighthouse across a miniature landscape, onto a full-scale set of the hospital Isolation Ward, where nurse Carole Lombard is ministering to a sick child. Stevens then cuts inside, and a short while later has Lombard look out the window. Instead of seeing the sea, which is what we’ve just been shown lies beyond the glass, she sees a busy street. Maybe she’s gone to a different window, but check this: panning along the far building, in a continuation of Lombard’s POV shot, we then discover that it’s the Isolation Ward — the very building Lombard is in! Time and space seem to have formed a Moebius strip to allow Lombard to look at herself.
The plotting carries out similarly weird contortions. At one point, Lombard is riding a bus with other hospital staff, and one nosy parker is on the point of revealing the dark secret from her past — suddenly, CRASH! The bus, magically reduced to miniature size, hurtles off the road and smashes itself to pieces in a cataclysm of quick cuts. Lombard receives a few cuts to the face, which we are presumably meant to see as the source of her sexy little scars, but that other nurse sure shut her mouth. It seems like Lombard has the fabled Medusa Touch. When, later, she tells Dr Brian Aherne that he’s going to get the modern hospital he’s been fighting for, because she saw it in a dream, we believe her. If, in fact, Carole Lombard can make things happen with the power of her mind, and is controlling the whole plot of the film, things make a certain sense. Of course, her shallow sister (Anne Shirley), for whom she took the rap for that child’s death, and who repaid her by stealing her fiance (Peter Cushing, sporting one of the few Northern accents), has to die. The only surprise is that Carole doesn’t have her explode like John Cassavetes at the end of THE FURY.
Another example of the film’s odd relationship with realism. The matron (Ethel Griffies, brilliant as the bird lady in THE BIRDS) bans cosmetics on her nurses, but of course all the women look immaculate all the time. But in her sick-bed, Shirley has a convincingly natural look, with the kind of skin tones only previously seen on children. Death, the great leveler and the great skin cleanser.
Was Cushing destined for Hollywood stardom? He apparently couldn’t wait to get home, though anemia prevented him joining up for WWII. His movie roles in America were all small, though VIGIL sees him, briefly, playing Lombard’s romantic interest, and he does very well in a scene of drunken despair, filmed by Stevens mainly in bleak wide shots. It’s a very good performance all round, but perhaps evidence more of what Cushing lacked as a lead — though quite the lover-boy offscreen, he doesn’t really create any kind of spark with his leading lady, and if Lombard doesn’t make you hot under the collar there may be no hope. Back in Britain, this quality of a sexuality which doesn’t show up on film proved no barrier at Hammer, where the sex was all sublimated into vampirism anyway, and Cushing would embody the man who showed up to punish it with a wooden stake to the cleavage. It’s doubtful if such opportunities would have come along in the US.